Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings

April 29, 2008, 9:00 a.m.

Note: If you are a present or potential law student who finds this blog entry of interest, you would probably also enjoy (and perhaps even benefit from) Nicholas Johnson, "So You Want to Be a Lawyer: A Play in Four Acts."

How to Pick Your Law School:
Random Thoughts on U.S. News' Law School Rankings

When the U.S. News' college rankings came out a couple of weeks ago some of our law students expressed concern to the Dean that the University of Iowa College of Law had dropped a couple of places.

Now that some time and temporary panic has passed, here are some random observations about the issue.

A couple of caveats: Obviously, these thoughts are mine alone; I know less about these matters than most of my colleagues, and I certainly don't speak for the UI or law school administration or faculty (none of whom has seen these comments before they appeared here). Moreover, I'm going to break from my usual practice and not even try to make the effort this morning to footnote (i.e., for a blog, "link" to) sources and data for all of the assertions and opinions that follow. (If you want more, a little bit of Google searching will bring up lots of material.) [For a consistent, 2010, analysis, see Jack Crittenden and Karen Dybis, "How Important is a School's Ranking," Back to School 2010, PreLaw Magazine].

Altogether too much is made of these U.S. News' rankings. For reasons discussed below, while the rankings can't be dismissed entirely -- largely merely because others give them disproportionate attention -- they really don't tell you much of value.

U.S. News' monopoly (of law school ranking systems) contributes to its disproportionate weight. For example, there are many sources of rankings of business schools. As a result, there are always some sources that any given business school can look to that will position it higher than other sources. Therefore, there is no single ranking that carries the public relations impact for business schools that U.S. News' does for law schools.

Iowa was a good law school, is a good law school and will continue to be a good law school. (a) Iowa's law school is doing just fine. While we're always agonizing over how we can improve, as individual faculty members and as an institution, there's no need to be defensive or apologetic for what we are -- in terms of the quality of our graduates, teaching, writing program, library, faculty research and writing, contribution to the global, national, state and local community, and so forth. (b) Iowa's overall ranking has fluctuated over the years, up and down -- as have the rankings of other good law schools. A single year's change is no cause for a law school's either dismay or cheering. (c) More significant, perhaps, is that Iowa's rank among public law schools has remained relatively consistently at number 7 over a number of years. (In other words, changes in Iowa's ranking is not so much a result of its comparative position among public law schools as it is the improved ranking of private law schools.)

The weight accorded various factors makes a dramatic difference in ranking. There's a Web site somewhere that dramatizes the impact on rankings of even slight shifts in the weighting of various U.S. News' factors. So (a) this enables anyone to find the schools with the best rankings on the factors they think most important, and (b) demonstrates how relatively irrational the composite rankings are.

The rankings have distorted law schools' decisions, and led to "gaming" the system -- and therefore unreliable and misleading results. (a) Because a law school's ranking is, in part, a function of its general and vague "reputation" among those included in the U.S. News' survey, money is diverted -- often in the $100,000 to $1,000,000 range -- to "marketing" the school, money that might be better used elsewhere.

(b) Data reported by law schools can be (has been and is) manipulated -- sometimes from outright misrepresentation, and sometimes from gaming the system. (None of the following, so far as I know, is being done at Iowa.)

[1] Average GPA/LSAT score numbers can be raised by only admitting the top half of the applicants normally admitted, reporting those scores, and then accepting lower-scoring transfer students (whose scores need not be reported) to fill up the seats -- and the tuition coffers. If night law school students don't count in the GPA/LSAT numbers, a school can admit lower GPA/LSAT students into their night law school program while the counting is going on, and then "transfer" them into the day program when they will no longer drag down the averages.

[2] A similar, but more unfortunate, strategy involves diverting scholarship money from quality students who genuinely need it to afford school, to those "merit" students with the highest GPA/LSAT numbers -- regardless of their need -- in a kind of bidding war.

[3] What percentage of a law school's graduates have jobs when they graduate? Virtually all of them -- if the school "hires" every graduate who doesn't yet have a job elsewhere at that time -- and then counts them as employed (as some do). Or the school can redefine what is a "job" -- counting waiters and taxi drivers as well as those employed as lawyers.

[4] How can a school improve its faculty-student ratio? Simply require all faculty to take their semesters of leave in the spring semester rather than the fall; count and report them in the fall, thereby improving the school's reported faculty-student ratio numbers, and let them go on leave in the spring when nobody's watching or counting.

[5] "Resources per student" can be manipulated by including the "free" access to Westlaw provided by the company for law students -- not at the amount of the blanket license charged the law school, but at what would have been the commercial value of the service if purchased by a law firm.

[6] Once "grade creep" learns to walk, and then run, all of a law school graduates' grades are "above average." See Catherine Rampell, "In Law Schools, Grades Go Up, Just Like That," New York Times, June 22, 2010, p. A1.

Given that the only limit on such manipulations are those imposed by the limits of the human imagination, the results obtained from the data used (as the old computer programmers' "GIGO" had it: "garbage in, garbage out") can be very misleading.

So what's a student to do when choosing a law school?

Distinguish between the "superficial" and the "substantive." Education, indeed life itself, can be measured by both the substantive and the superficial. I don't use the word "superficial" in a pejorative sense. What's on your resume, the schools you attended, the grades you made, the work experience you've had, all have their impact -- in getting that first interview. But how you do in that interview -- and, more significantly, on the job and throughout your career -- are a function of "what you know, not whom you know," your knowledge, your skills, your work habits, your performance -- in short, "substance," not "superficiality."

Substance: You have to "teach yourself the law" -- and you can. Coming away from a legal education with knowledge and skills, like coming away from poetry with a sense of its meaning, is 90% a matter of what you bring to it and how hard you work at it. An architect I know says he was told by his drawing teacher, "I can't teach you how to draw. I can try to teach you how to see. But you're going to have to teach yourselves how to draw." Or, as President Johnson used to say, "They call me 'Lucky Lyndon,' but I always found the harder I worked the luckier I got."

There was a time when some of our nation's best judges and lawyers "read law" in a lawyer's office, rather than going to "a law school," before entering the bar.

There's not that much difference between casebooks, and most any law school library will have access to the basic statutory material and other sources -- even if the school doesn't give you access to Westlaw and Lexis.

You can go to one of "the best" law schools on the U.S. News' rankings, and if you don't go to class, read the assignments, take notes, make your own outlines, learn to "think like a lawyer," write persuasively, argue, know cold the basic stuff and be able to figure out the rest -- you can tell everyone you graduated from whatever school it is, but you won't be able to function very successfully as a lawyer. (Not incidentally, you learn legal skills by making outlines, not by reading those of fellow students or commercial firms.)

On the other hand, if you do all those things, take your legal education seriously, and really put in the hours (President Richard Nixon once said that what it takes to get through law school is the "iron butt" one develops sitting for hours in the library), you'll do just fine as a lawyer. Wherever you went to school you'll know more law, and have more skills, than most of the 19th Century lawyers who "read law" -- and probably most of the graduates of other law schools.

Superficiality: How to pick the best law school for you. (a) If you have your heart set on getting a U.S. Court of Appeals (or Supreme Court) clerkship, or a job with one of the nation's largest and most prestigious law firms, you might want to give more attention to the top, say, half dozen law schools on the U.S. News' ranking -- if that goal is realistic for you, given your GPA/LSAT scores and the school's admission standards. But you might also want to keep a number of things in mind. [1] Your odds of getting a Supreme Court clerkship are about as good as your being picked to play basketball with an NBA team just because you were an OK basketball player in high school. [2] Your odds of graduating number one in your class (or even in the top 10 percent) are not terrific either -- regardless of your law school -- remember, all your classmates arrived at law school with about the same credentials you did. [3] And, in that connection, at least consider (I haven't figured this one out, and therefore don't have a recommendation) whether you would be better off (superficially, in getting that first job interview) to have graduated in the top 10% of a school ranked 15th to 30th -- or in the bottom 20% of a school ranked among the top six -- when you go out looking for a job. (You can't predict your ultimate class standing with precision, but how you rank among your classmates going in (where your GPA/LSAT places you relative to the others; your percentile ranking) can give you a very imprecise notion of where you may rank coming out.)

(b) If you don't have the GPA/LSAT to get into one of the top half-dozen or so schools -- or you have the scores, but you're neither a "trustafarian" nor the offspring of wealthy parents -- or you genuinely prefer smaller firms and towns -- what do the rankings mean to you? Not much. For all the reasons outlined above, while there may be at least a superficial difference between the top half-dozen or so and those ranked, say, 15-30, there is little if any meaningful difference between a school ranked 16th and one ranked 27th. There is certainly no reason to pick the former over the latter because of the difference in their rankings. Most of the top 30 schools would be considered "national" law schools, fully capable of giving you a legal education with both the substantive and superficial qualities you seek.

(c) In addition to changing jobs, most of us change careers a half-dozen times during our lifetime. So picking a state you're going to live in all of your life when you're just in your twenties is problematical. But, for example, if you can say with certainty that you know you're going to live in Montana the rest of your life, taking care of the ranch and other family businesses, there might very well be a point to attending the law school in Missoula. (And no, I have no guess as to how it's ranked.) There may be an occasional Montana quirk in the law you'll pick up. More important, your classmates will be the lawyers, judges and business people you'll be working with during your professional career.

(d) If you're choosing from among national law schools, you might also want to consider such things as the size of the student body and the town where the law school is located. At least I think when you get more than 600 or so students you begin to lose a valuable sense of community; and being in a major metropolitan area can offer more distractions, not to mention the sheer stress of getting about, than is most compatible with law study.

(e) Don't be blinded by factors that contribute to a school's superficial reputation, but may add little to the substantive quality of your education. To avoid the suspicion this is "sour grapes" on my part because Iowa scores poorly, I'll use a couple examples where it is (or has been) near top in the nation.

A few years ago the Iowa faculty was ranked (in an independent study run by neither U.S. News nor the Iowa law school) the most productive in research and writing of all public law schools, and second only to Yale among all law schools. (Needless to say, that ranking, were it done annually, also would go up and down over the years; and Iowa probably would not be ranked that high today.) Our law library is by any measure -- number of volumes, number of titles, and especially focus of the collection -- number one, two or three in the nation (depending on whom you ask) -- thanks largely to Professor Arthur Bonfield. Both the faculty's scholarship, and the library -- and other things Iowa could claim -- are nice "Iowa brags" of both substantive and superficial significance. They are important to the overall mission and contribution of the law school. Both contribute something to the faculty's teaching and law students' learning; I'm just not sure how much.

You may be attracted to a law school because of a superstar professor you've seen on TV, only to find once you get there that he or she is devoting so much time to television appearances, book writing, congressional testimony, litigation, and public lecturing that you will seldom if ever see him or her. Indeed, by the time you get to that law school he or she may have died, retired or moved on to a school or other position elsewhere.

What about the "quality" of the student body? At the outset, for the reasons detailed above, reports of average GPA/LSAT scores may be unreliable. To the extent they're accurate, and vary significantly, there's probably a marginal value to being surrounded by bright colleagues. There's some value to having a fellow student who always comes up with the right answers in class. But I'm not so sure that's more valuable to you than your coming up with the wrong answer, and working your way through, with a professor, to the right answer. You may benefit from a "study group" of fellow students. But my experience as a law student was that I learned more, better and faster studying alone.

So those are some random morning thoughts about law school rankings.

Bottom line: chill. Law school rankings don't tell you much, and can be and are manipulated. Rankings are of very little significance in terms of the substantive quality of the legal education you'll get, especially because you're going to have to teach yourself the law anyway. Superficially, rankings in the top half-dozen may make some difference -- if you're set on getting into the places where they can help open doors -- but even by that standard you may be better off with a higher class rank from a lower ranked school than a much lower class rank from a higher ranked school. And between schools ranked, say, 15th to 30th, there really isn't much basis for choosing one school over another.

Good luck -- and don't forget to apply at Iowa!

For consistent counsel regarding the rational selection of colleges for undergraduate education, see,
[F]or too many parents and their children, acceptance by an elite institution isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or the University of Virginia or the University of Chicago is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, an uncontestable harbinger of the accomplishments or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling.

What madness. And what nonsense.

For one thing, the admissions game is too flawed to be given so much credit. For another, the nature of a student’s college experience — the work that he or she puts into it, the self­examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed — matters more than the name of the institution attended. In fact students at institutions with less hallowed names sometimes demand more of those places and of themselves. Freed from a focus on the packaging of their education, they get to the meat of it. . . . Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.

Midway through last year, I looked up the undergraduate alma maters of the chief executives of the top 10 corporations in the Fortune 500. These were the schools: the University of Arkansas; the University of Texas; the University of California, Davis; the University of Nebraska; Auburn; Texas A & M; the General Motors Institute (now called Kettering University); the University of Kansas; the University of Missouri, St. Louis; and Dartmouth College.
Frank Bruni, "How to Survive the College Admissioins Madness," New York Times, March 15, 2015, p. SR1

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Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Johnson...

I'm 34, single, a high school teacher, and currently in the process of changing my profession to law.

Having a career as a lawyer is something I have always wanted, yet due to circumstance been unable to thus far achieve.

I was recently listening to a seminar by a man named Earl Nightnigale. In his seminar, he quoted several works you wrote regarding television. In short, his quotes have led me to your site.

After reading several of your essays, as well as the play "So you want to be a lawyer", I'm moved to say thank you. Thank you for your taking the time to write so frankly about the profession and the process of becoming. (Not to mention the many other subjects you have contributed your mind toward).

I wonder, however, your opinion regarding folks over the age of 30...specifically 34...seeking to enter the profession. Is there an age in which the freshman skills of a newly educated lawyer are deemed irrelevant for employability, despite that lawyers commitment to the values of ethics and professionalism?

Forgive my blatant self-concern, but will I be able to find work as a freshman attorney at the age of 37 or 38?

If you find time, it would be great to hear your thoughts on the subject of mature law students and their career prospects.


Anonymous said...

I found a great free web site on law schools. www.HowToPickALawSchool.com

Unknown said...

This was an excellent post. I thoroughly appreciate you taking the time to write this blog. I'm looking to apply for fall 2010 and can't afford too many applications this "article" you've written has helped me put things in perspective.

Nick said...

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